Lord Roll of Ipsden

Economist, civil servant, banker and formidable negotiator
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Eric Roll was the last survivor of the economists of Middle European origin who featured so prominently in British public life in the 1960s. But, unlike Tommy Balogh and Nicholas Kaldor, he was thoroughly integrated into the British bureaucratic machine.

Eric Roll, economist, civil servant and banker: born Nowosielitza, Austria 1 December 1907; Professor of Economics and Commerce, University College of Hull 1935-46; member, later Deputy Head, British Food Mission to North America 1941-46; Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Food 1946-47; Under-Secretary, HM Treasury (Central Economic Planning Staff) 1948; Minister, UK Delegation to OEEC 1949; CMG 1949, KCMG 1962; Deputy Head, UK Delegation to Nato 1952; Under-Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1953-57, Deputy Secretary 1959-61; CB 1956; Executive Director, International Sugar Council 1957-59; Chairman, UN Sugar Conference 1958; Deputy Leader, UK Delegation for negotiations with EEC, 1961-63; Economic Minister and Head of UK Treasury Delegation, Washington 1963-64; Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Department of Economic Affairs 1964-66; deputy chairman, S.G. Warburg & Co 1967-75, chairman 1974-83, joint chairman 1983-87; chairman, Mercury Securities 1974-84, president 1985-87; Chancellor, Southampton University 1974-84; created 1977 Baron Roll of Ipsden; Chairman, Bilderberg Meetings 1986-89; president, S.G. Warburg Group 1987-95; senior adviser, UBS (formerly SBC Warburg, then Warburg Dillon Read, then UBS Warburg) 1995-2005; married 1934 Freda Taylor (died 1998; two daughters); died London 30 March 2005.

Eric Roll was the last survivor of the economists of Middle European origin who featured so prominently in British public life in the 1960s. But, unlike Tommy Balogh and Nicholas Kaldor, he was thoroughly integrated into the British bureaucratic machine.

Besides being an economist, and author of a best-selling textbook of economic history, he had a distinguished career as a civil servant, internationally as well as in Whitehall, for over a quarter of a century, most prominently involved with Britain's abortive entry into the European Economic Community in the early 1960s and with Harold Wilson's failed attempt to introduce a Department of Economic Affairs as a counterweight to the Treasury. After he retired from the DEA he embarked on a third career as a merchant banker with S.G. Warburg for another 30 years.

Unlike Kaldor and Balogh, he was not Jewish, and, more importantly, never courted controversy - quite the opposite. Indeed people were apt to complain that he never said anything bad about people. "It may be a sign of weakness, this blandness, or of good nature," he said. "I like to think it is because I am very conscious of my own deficiencies."

This humility led to a gift for friendship, especially with the powerful, for he was a formidable networker. In his autobiography ( Crowded Hours, 1985) - normally an occasion for scoring over former enemies - he thanks hundreds of people who helped him over the years and has barely a bad word to say about any of the numerous personages he mentions, virtually all of whom are described as "able", "distinguished", "agreeable", "helpful".

His temperament, sanguine, patient, made him, according to his friend J.K. Galbraith, the most accomplished international negotiator he had ever come across. In his career as a public servant, he discovered

a common theme: the need to negotiate constructively not only with one party, but more often than not as part of a group, the members of which had many diverse interests but could - if all went well - be united in the pursuit of one overriding goal.

His outlook was invariably and firmly that of a man of his time, his beliefs - above all in the overwhelming importance of European unity - natural in someone of his background. He was born in 1907 in Nowosielitza, a little village near Czernowitz, at that time the junction of Romania and two great empires, the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian. His father was a bank manager with broad financial views, transferred to Vienna during the First World War.

A stay in Germany during his teens marked the young Eric Roll with the vision of hyperinflation. A return to Romania added the local language - which he describes as "relatively simple" - to his armoury, which already included French and German. He soon abandoned a childhood ambition to be "a sleeping car conductor on one of the great international trains" and was happy enough to fall in with his father's plan to send him to study in England, more precisely in Birmingham, which turned out to be an ideal training ground for someone who wished to combine the study of economics with some acquaintance with the wider world of commerce.

He enjoyed university life - including a ballroom-dancing competition (he won) - and went on to do a doctorate on a typically Birmingham subject, the Boulton-Watt partnership in making and selling early steam engines. At Birmingham he met and married a fellow student, Freda Taylor, to whom he was married for nearly 65 years until her death in 1998.

In 1930 at the tender age of 23 he was appointed as a lecturer in economics at the relatively new University College of Hull where he wrote a textbook, A History of Economic Thought (1938), which went through numerous editions. By that time he had been naturalised and only rarely returned to his family.

The Second World War found him lecturing in the United States, where in June 1941 he was recruited to work for the British Food Mission in Washington, marking the start of 25 years at the heart of international affairs with all the ingredients necessary for "perfect tuition" for his new world: the experience also allowed him to meet large numbers of influential personalities. The concern with food and agriculture - then far nearer the heart of government and international negotiations than they are now - lasted for 20 years.

At the end of the war he turned his back on academic life and in 1949, after short spells in the Ministry of Agriculture and the Central Economic Planning Staff at the Treasury he moved to Paris to work on implementing the Marshall Plan with the fledgling Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 1957 after four years of what even he regarded as a difficult return to his old department he was back in the international arena as the first executive director of the International Sugar Council.

But in 1961, after another unsatisfying year at the Ministry of Agriculture, he was appointed to be deputy leader and thus in effect chief negotiator of the team under Edward Heath which tried to join the EEC - an appointment which was partly a tribute to the importance of agriculture in the negotiations. Even though they were torpedoed by General Charles de Gaulle, Roll emerged with his reputation enhanced and abandoned the offer to become Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool University to go to Washington as Economic Minister and thus as Britain's representative at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

The - albeit unsatisfactory - culmination of his public service career came in his two years as Permanent Under-Secretary at the Department of Economic Affairs under George Brown, about whom he is more than usually tactful - "our disagreements never diminished my high regard for his exceptional intelligence and deep-seated patriotism or my personal affection born of a recognition of the basic kindness of this exceptional man": one who accords Roll barely a mention in his own autobiography and who once said that Roll's appointment, allegedly made after a casual encounter in New York, "was probably a mistake". Moreover from the start it was clear to Roll, as to almost everyone else, that the DEA did not stand a chance of imposing its views in its eternal battle with the Treasury.

In 1966, at the age of 58, he retired, with a low opinion of the politicians he had worked with - he gave the impression that there had been no real statesmen in British public life since 1945. In an interview in 1995, he said that in Britain "there should be an area of economic policy in which [politicians] don't cut each others' throats".

He was widely rumoured to be a candidate for succession to Lord Cromer as Governor of the Bank of England and indeed was a director for 10 years, from 1968 to 1977, but was passed over in favour of the far less distinguished figure of Leslie O'Brien. He also failed to become Director of the London School of Economics. After a sabbatical year at Harvard he took on a number of jobs, including one as a "national director" of Times Newspapers - from which he resigned in 1983 after seeing that Rupert Murdoch was running the papers without regard to the national or indeed any interest other than his personal agenda. Roll's major preoccupation for the rest of his life was his directorship of S.G. Warburg, succeeding the founder as chairman between 1974 and 1983 and remaining closely involved for another 15 years. He continued as a senior adviser to its successor bank, UBS, going to the office until the day he died.

At first he was not that welcome in what was, admittedly, a pretty special environment. "As a civil servant without a banking background," wrote the firm's historian,

Roll's appointment provoked dissent at S.G. Warburg. Some thought that Siegmund had picked a passive figurehead so he could secretly pull the strings. At first people snickered at Roll, naming him Sir Echo, since his views frequently reflected what Siegmund thought. Sometimes Siegmund seemed to delight in teasing Roll by unexpectedly changing his opinion and leaving Roll stranded. But over time Roll made believers of many sceptics. In the 1970s, as Warburgs specialised in advising Third World governments on their debt, Roll's extensive contacts in foreign ministries helped to establish Warburgs as pre-eminent in the field.

By background Roll was "an honorary uncle" - the term applied to the senior bankers, many of continental origin like Henry Grunfeld and Warburg himself - but one "who looked and sounded awfully British". As chairman of the group in he early 1980s he thus formed an ideal bridge between the Uncles and the essentially British group round David Scholey who took over from Warburg.

Freed from the constraints of public service he could also speak and write freely about economic matters. He emerged as a sane, if not very original thinker, in favour of European economic integration and a thorough overhaul of the international economic system - under strain even before the first oil shock of 1973-74. The solution, he felt, was, unsurprisingly, an International Central Bank, which, ever the realist, he said,

would work only if the political will to make it work is present. This in turn, means a readiness by important countries to pool an important part of their sovereignties.

More presciently he foresaw the emerging triumph of monetarism and saw its limitations early and clearly. Like floating exchange rates he found an excessive reliance on it

an example of an excessively mechanistic outlook, and therefore in the deepest sense irrational. It represents an instance of the never-ending search for the simple cure - all so beguiling and yet so dangerous, particularly in anything relating to the problems of society . . . after all these years, I have come to the conclusion that one mustn't expect too much of economics . . . I think economists have to some extent failed us in claiming too much . . . the trend in modern economics to "rational expectations", to an excessive use of mathematics, bears little relation to the problems of statesmen or entrepreneurs.

Although his autobiography is, effectively, a public document with little about himself, still less his wife or children, a sardonic sense of humour occasionally emerges. In Roll's view Jean Monnet, creator of the European Community, was no intellectual - "I am not sure how well-read he was or whether he read much at all."

Moreover Roll retained a slightly detached, cynical attitude towards the world of international confabulations. Even though he was a founder member, and later Chairman, of the Bilderberg conferences, most mysterious and supposedly influential of all international gatherings, he wrote how

I have sometimes wondered about their value particularly after reading Arthur Koestler's The Call Girls [1972], a hilarious description of those addicted to conferences.

In his 1995 interview he confessed that he had asked the new obituaries editor of The Times if they had one of him. "Oh yes, a very good one, I think you'd like it." It was shorter than this.

Nicholas Faith